Impact of Lead on America’s Wildlife

Wildlife management has come a long way since man learned how to manipulate plants and animals for renewable consumption. However, one thing that has yet to be addressed is the negative impact lead has on living things, for the toxic material is still used by hunters and anglers and gets left in the field. Lead has been known to be highly toxic for more than 2,000 years. Lead causes numerous pathological effects on all living organisms, from acute, paralytic poisoning and seizures to subtle, long-term mental impairment, miscarriage, neurological damage, and impotence in males.

Research has found that even low levels of lead can impair biological functions. In addition, there may be no safe level of lead in the body tissues of fetuses and young. Despite our knowledge of how dangerous lead is, the toxic substance continues to be used in hunting and fishing products that exposes both wildlife and humans to lead.

The California condor, so near extinction in the mid-1980s that the last 9 wild birds were captured for an expensive, captive-breeding program, had a healthy enough captive population to begin reintroduction into the wild in the mid-1990s. Yet reintroduced condors are far from safe since they feed on carcasses often containing lead bullet fragments. At least 30 condors in California and Arizona have died from lead poisoning since reintroductions began, and chronic, sub-lethal lead poisoning is rampant throughout the four reintroduced condor flocks in the United States.

In recent decades the United States government has implemented regulations to reduce human lead exposure in everything from drinking water to gasoline to toys and even shooting ranges. But now it looks like it’s time to do away with it for good. Because there are now numerous, commercially available, non-toxic alternatives, the petitioning groups are urging the EPA to develop regulations to require non-lead rifle bullets, shotgun pellets, and fishing weights and lures throughout the Country.

Non-toxic steel, copper, and alloy bullets and non-lead fishing tackle are readily available in all 50 states. Hunters and anglers in states and areas that have restrictions or have already banned lead have made successful transitions to hunting with non-toxic bullets for white-tailed deer and other big game species as well as fishing with non-toxic artificial lures and weights.

Knowing what we know about lead, and knowing that we have effective alternatives for sportsmen, now is the time to make the switch over to non-toxic. It could be one of the most beneficial, widespread wildlife and habitat management practices ever, especially for fish, birds, and predators. Over a dozen manufacturers of bullets have designed and now market many varieties of non-lead, nontoxic bullets and shot with satisfactory to superior ballistic characteristics – fully replacing the old lead projectiles.

The Toxic Substances Control Act gives the EPA broad authority to regulate chemical substances that present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment, such as lead. The EPA can prohibit the manufacture, processing, and distribution in commerce of lead for shot, bullets, and fishing sinkers. They may choose to do just that very soon. And I think we, as well as the wildlife and fishes that we enjoy, will benefit.

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